PRINT Summer 1987


Dressers and bureaus of internal affairs.

ALONG THE MORE FASHIONABLE stretches of antique row, “retro” has already made its predictable passage from the ’50s to the ’60s. Not unexpectedly, retro’s ironic accomplishment has been to make even nostalgia fall in with the March of Progress. First we took up Art Nouveau, then Art Deco, followed in increasingly rapid, breathtaking succession by golden-olden decades one after the other, with occasional reruns or confusions depending on how much the dealer or the buyer actually knew about the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, or—its hard to believe that what’s about to follow is even possible—how much they know about the ’60s. If this sequential march is to continue on course, where else can it lead but to the black hole of the ’70s, the decade when retro took command? And then thirty-five-year-old kidney-shaped tables and polka-dotted couches will look old again; truly up-to-date interior design will be their fifteen-year-old copies.

Nostalgias for lost ways of living, for simpler times, for the vanishing countryside, for the golden classical age, have shadowed Modern life since the Renaissance. Retro’s nostalgia, however, is for something that we still have trouble accepting has passed, no matter how well we know it has: the identification of progress with technological advance. Nostalgia for the period styles of early industrial technologies didn’t begin in the ’70s. People had drooped languidly on bentwood chairs beneath Tiffany lamps in the ’50s, and by the ’60s some of them were pouring cocktails from Art Deco shakers. But such tastes were generally considered manifestations of camp, or else a form of Ludditism. In the ’70s the media picked up on the pulse and rechristened the taste a fad—retro—holding it up as a Statement on Contemporary Life.

Retro might seem a rejection of the idea of progress, but it was in fact addressing a perversion of that idea. In his History of the Idea of Progress, Robert Nisbet writes that for its 18th-century champions “the very purpose, the ultimate objective of progress [was] the steady and evermore encompassing advance of individual freedom in the world.” The critical importance of industry and technology in realizing this objective was recognized from the start. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, regarded by his 18th-century contemporaries as the “founding philosopher” of progress, considered industry the key factor in the struggle against despotism. As Nisbet writes, “The essence of a successful system of manufactures was freedom: the freedom of the individual from the thicket of customs, privileges, ranks, and laws that everywhere in Europe seemed to be threatening to stop the progress of the new system even before it was well started.”

The rest of the history of the idea of progress builds to the point where that freedom is exchanged for dogma, libertarianism for formalism, and where progress leads to the edge of an apocalyptic abyss, onto whose sides we’ve been hanging all decade. Retro offered a homeopathic remedy to this terrifying freeze by turning the history of progressive architecture and design into a parody of progress. You paid your money and picked your period. You exchanged historical imperative for memory lane. Retro’s recycling of styles was the exterior projection of a process going on inside: in the ’70s, just after the moment when our obsolete style of self became so evident, we rearranged the Tiffany lamp, the boomerang table, the Depression glass, and the Fiestaware to pass the time while engaging in deconstruction, reconstruction, and major renovation within ourselves.

Retro provided us with the exterior analogues we wanted for our interior architecture—provided us with an X-ray architecture, as it were. And from that X-ray we deduced a diagnosis, and a course of treatment—a refurnishing with bits of therapy, a refurbishing with jars of vitamins, a rehabilitation with the odd Zen koan, a reshelving with self-help books. Now, retro’s imminent movement from the ’60s to the ’70s brings it to a crossroad. Were it to try appropriating the styles of the ’70s, it would find itself negotiating the earlier styles it had already explored. At the point where retro falls into solipsism one senses the same kind of self-cannibalism that retro opposed in the perverted idea of progress. The kind of renovation we need now involves a much more complete rehabilitation of the ideas of progress and freedom than that offered by retro’s play with the styles of decades past.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. This column appears regularly in Artforum.